Investigation

‘LOOTED’ PALLIATIVES: The inside story

That there is hunger in the land is no longer a hidden fact. The recent incident, which followed the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, somewhat laid this bare as angry, hungry youths went on the rampage, invading warehouses and carting away anything in sight. ISIOMA MADIKE, in this report, examines the events surrounding the looting of hoarded palliatives

The announcement of a lockdown in March by the Nigerian government followed the expected surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. The Federal Government, sensing there could be danger in keeping people indoors, especially those who depend on daily earnings before they could eat, quickly followed up with certain measures to mitigate the pains inherent in the lockdown strategy.

The most vulnerable groups in the society such as the aged, children, the sick and the physically challenged were considered for the support. The outcome of the government’s thinking was the provision of food items, which were to serve as some sort of palliatives to cushion the inevitable effect the lockdown would have on this group of individuals. In this regard, the government announced a follow up plan to distribute food provisions to as many Nigerians as possible, the low-income earners.

Lagos, as should be expected, was first to be considered in this respect given its status as the epicenter of the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic. The initial lockdown was announced for Lagos and its immediate neighbour, Ogun State, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Eventually, the period of the lockdown was extended, and to other cities in the country.

Gradually but steadily, people started complaining of starvation, such that many began to defy the restrictions and go about their various businesses. “Hunger virus is more dangerous than Coronavirus” became a popular mantra as people broke the lockdown rules to look for food wherever they could.

Lagos Govt’s attempt to share food items

In Lagos, there were attempts by the State Government to share food items for the people; a number of houses and residents were taken in, in many of the local government areas. But, what was distributed greatly fell short of the needs. Lagosians, as is often the case, complained and labelled the process fraudulent.

The Human & Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA) and other anti-corruption organisations that monitored the distribution of the palliatives lent credence to this assertion as they stated that what was given to some estates was actually what was meant for an individual. Soon, the lamentation and wailing became louder with many insinuating that the distribution of whatever might have been made available for the people had been politicized.

It got to a point that some residents in Ketu/Agboyi Local Council Area said they had lost hope of receiving any stimulus package from the state government. They complained that a greater portion of the relief materials were reserved for party members when the commodities got to the local council. One of the residents of the area, Mrs. Oluwatobi Adeyemi, 65, told this reporter that if you don’t have a party card, you won’t get it.

According to her, “They brought rice to this area but the people in charge of dividing it said it was for party people and they started sharing a unit of measurement to the individuals.” Another resident, Madam Ngozi Nwabuisi, also narrated how fights broke out when people tried to protest the ugly manner the officials handled the distribution of the items.

She said: “A few bags of rice were left for the entire street after a large quantity had been reserved for party members and officials of the area. The area boys here had to resist such injustice. It was such a miserable experience.” It was leant that each pack of the “Emergency Food ” response contained 5kg of rice, 5kg of garri and 3-4kg of beans, and was sealed. Yet, the item was paltry, negating what the governor had actually said a pack should contain.

However, a source at the state Ministry of Agriculture, who craved anonymity, told this reporter that the ministry distributed what was approved by the government in each ward. He however, regretted that some “powerful people” hijacked the distribution, thereby denying the appropriate quantity to those the items were meant for. “It is possible that those powerful people may not have taken the packs to the masses.

The quantity we asked them to distribute was not what was given. The elderly and the vulnerable in the society were eventually denied this. It is really terrible,” the source added. It is the same story in Agege, Ikeja, Ogba, Iyana Ipaja, Alimosho and Kosofe. In some areas, the officials claimed they were waylaid by hoodlums. They said they had to run away and could not return there. In Ikorodu, for instance, residents said there was no distribution at all.

“Some people got spaghetti and sugar while others got rice and beans. But, many did not get anything,” said Mrs. Obi Nwaghodoh, 60, who lives in Ishawo area of Ikorodu. The Chairman, Oke-Aro CDA, Ibereko, Badagry, Johnson Ajele, who spoke with the Punch Newspaper, had also said: “We didn’t get anything from the Lagos State Government.

It was the Olorunda Local Council Development Area that sent us two small bags containing three dericas of rice and beans, and one bottle of water. “We were asked to give the food to the underprivileged people in our community. They told us to take pictures of the beneficiaries and send the same to them. We gave the food items to two old poor people.

Some days later, a former commissioner sent two polythene bags of food rations containing three dericas of rice, three dericas of beans and three dericas of garri. We shared it to the six poor elderly people in the community out of about 80 of them.”

Sanwo-Olu reacts

The Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had said that the various palliatives given out were to cushion the expected harsh effect of the lockdown on the citizens. He had also acknowledged the lopsided distribution of the items in his broadcast to Lagosians.

He had said: “Fellow Lagosians, as you all know, when we issued the first set of stay-at-home directives, I had announced a welfare package for the indigent and vulnerable segment of the society.

Though we encountered some hitches along the way, we have since revised the process and have now seen a marked improvement in the distribution of the relief packages, with the distribution being carried out in a dignifying manner that is fully compliant with all public health directives and guidelines.

“In the first and second phase of the programme, we were able to reach over 200,000 households, which include the vulnerable, physically challenged and the elderly. During this time as well, we were also able to feed a large number of the organised informal sector, junior members of the military and police force in Lagos, as well as minimum wage earners in the State’s public service. “Fellow Lagosians, I am pleased today, to announce additional palliatives for our citizens to further ameliorate the inconvenience occasioned by this extended lockdown.

In the first instance, we will be rolling out the following measures: In the next couple of days, we will commence a daily ‘Food Kitchen’ programme, which will see us aim to feed about 100,000 people daily. “This will largely target the youth.

We are identifying local food vendors, who will pilot this programme, and ensure that the process of cooking and serving of the meals adhere strictly to public health guidelines. We are also cleaning up our data from our various social registers to get a clean list of truly vulnerable and economically challenged persons to enable us to remit some cash to them. We aim to do these cash transfers by the end of the week to a minimum of 250,000 indigent citizens.”

The conditional Cash Transfer policy, an initiative of the Federal Government to the most vulnerable and indigent of the society was officially flagged off in Lagos on August 4, at Amuwo-Odofin Local Government Area of the State, according to information in the state website.

The initiative, which was administered through the designated household caregiver, who will in turn utilise the money for the better living of the household, was flagged off by the Commissioner for Wealth Creation and Employment, Mrs. Yetunde Arobieke, and top Federal Government functionaries. However, instead of calming down frayed nerves, the additional palliative in the form of a daily food kitchen to feed over 100,000 youths in the state, which commenced on April 20, in Kosofe local council, created more problems. The residents were enraged by the substandard and inadequate food provided and chased away the caterer in charge of cooking and food distribution.

The daily food kitchen initiative was originally intended to employ local food vendors in their respective local governments and charged them with the responsibility of food preparation and distribution.

But in the case of Oworonshoki, which happened to be one of the start-off locations of the initiative, a different thing happened other than what was arranged. Saturday Telegraph learnt that a special adviser in the Ministry of Local Government and Community Affairs, supplied the caterer used, instead of the one recommended by Kosofe Local Council. The special adviser was said to be attached to the Honourable Commissioner of the ministry. The local council authorities have been made aware of the negative response of the youth to the contracted caterer, but had no control over the programme as direct disbursement of funds to caterers was handled solely by the office of the commissioner. But in the wisdom of the commissioner and to avoid more dissatisfaction in this ward, the ministry, sources said, quickly reverted to the local vendor originally recommended by the local council authorities.

CACOVID supplied items worth over N1.4b

By late September, Private sector-led Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID-19), supplied Lagos State with additional food items said to worth over N1.4 billion. This was part of its plan to feed over 1.7 million households, especially the indigent and elderly, across 774 local governments in the country, and to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. The Commissioner for Agriculture, Ms. Abisola Olusanya, had said: “Under the administration of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, we have taken the pains to get bags marked, to print on them the Lagos State logo, the CACOVID logo and to put these items in each pack, such that we have transparency across board.”

However, the coalition had said the food provision would cover 107,564 households in Lagos State. But the distribution was yet to happen before the #EndSARS protest began. Following the crisis that ensued, the warehouses holding the palliatives were discovered and plundered by “hoodlums”. The ugly incident was one of the fallout of the outbreak of violence during the #EndSARS protests.

It started slowly but gained momentum when youths in the FESTAC-Okota axis of Lagos State burst into a warehouse located on Benster Crescent, popularly called Monkey Village, and carted away “palliatives”. The products, according to the rampaging youths, were stashed away from the prying eyes of the public in spite of hunger in the land. From there, they reportedly invaded another warehouse where suspected COVID- 19 palliatives were stored at Mazamaza community in Oriade Local Council Development Area of the state.

In a viral video, the youth were seen looting the warehouse and carting away food items such as rice, beans, yams and other edibles. They did not stop at that but encouraged residents in the area to move into the warehouse and pick whatever they could as they believed the items belonged to the people. The near mob action was witnessed barely 24 hours after suspected thugs reportedly discovered a warehouse where suspected COVID-19 palliatives were hidden at the palace of the Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu. And like a wide fire, the bug quickly spread to other parts of the country where governors were accused of hoarding the palliatives, which was mainly donated by CACOVID.

A resident told this newspaper that a bonfire was set at a junction not far from the warehouse, after which palliatives were carted away. The development came against the breakdown of law and order following the shooting of #EndSARS protesters at Lekki. And numerous offices and public buildings were set ablaze across the state the following day. While there was outrage that governments in Nigeria were hoarding food in time of starvation, the Lagos State officials said the time frame shows that the food palliatives were received months after the lockdown was lifted. “And the state government appears to be fulfilling the wish of CACOVID, which is streamlined toward the most vulnerable in the state,” added Olusanya.

Residents speak

George Sholanke, one of those who collected “their own share of COVID-19 palliatives” from a Warehouse at St. Monica Catholic Church Road Junction, Monkey Village or Jesus Village, Mazamaza, Amuwo- Odofin, narrated what happened to this reporter. He said that some All Progressives Congress (APC) chieftains in the area used to visit the warehouse, where they usually collected bags of palliatives unknown to the masses. “Their movements were noticed by some commercial motorcycle operators (Okada) and repairers, who have their workshop adjacent to the Warehouse’s perimeter wall. I know one of them, who lives around my house, and he will not give anybody. We initially thought he used to buy them not knowing it was our palliative items. “So, two days to the day that the masses discovered the warehouse, one of them came in and with the help of some cartpushers, they collected some bags and left. They did it in such a way that people would think that the cart-pushers are carrying debris. Then, on the eve of that fateful day, they came, collected again as usual and gave some to the cart-pushers, who helped them. “But, on their way home, some street boys saw them and demanded to know where they stole the stuff from. They responded by saying that the items were not stolen rather they were given to them by some people at the warehouse. So, they looked at the bags and saw Lagos COVID-19, not for sale. They opened it and saw the content. It was then that they forced the cart-pushers to show them the warehouse, and that night, the area boys went in and broke the warehouse. “As early as 5am in the morning, people had started carrying bags of mixed items. When I asked, they told me where it was happening. So, I quickly went and carried my own. My wife joined me. We were able to get Indomie, garri, magi, spaghetti and salt among others. In fact, we won’t buy Indomie again for the rest of this year.” Another resident of the area, Mrs. Blessing Okoh, also said: “I didn’t know what was happening earlier. I was washing my clothes that early morning when my neighbour came in and broke the news. I quickly abandoned my clothes and went there. Though I didn’t go on time, I was able to get some Indomie and three of those bags containing different items. “When I got there, there were already too many people inside the warehouse. I managed to enter anyway. When I got in, I started looking for rice, but couldn’t find any before I descended on Indomie, spaghetti, and salt. If I had seen rice, I wouldn’t have a problem again buying rice this season. Before I entered that warehouse, some soldiers came in with their pick-up vehicle, and were collecting theirs. The soldiers would occasionally fire in the air to disperse people and to gain entrance. “As they were packing, they didn’t stop anybody from carrying too. We even passed through the canal as the wooden bridge was not big enough to contain many people who were rushing home so as to quickly return for another round of “looting”. I learnt it was the area boys that opened the warehouse.” Isaac Chinemere claimed not to have entered into the warehouse but bought from some Hausa cart-pushers, who didn’t have a place to store what they got from the warehouse. “I didn’t enter the warehouse but I was on the road buying from mallams. Some people were selling a full bag for N3,000. Another man parked his car and was buying from the people and left when his vehicle was full. “I bought too, even till the next morning, when some of the bags stored in the nearby houses and shops were brought out for lack of space. I bought the ones that I would resell later just like many other people who were buying from the area boys. I bought some bags for N2,000 and others for N2,500.”

House of Assembly members implicated

As the looting spree was going on, words filtered in that some members of the state House of Assembly also hoarded part of the people’s palliatives. Specifically, names like the Majority Leader of Lagos State House of Assembly, Hon. Sanai Agunbiade, and Mojisola Alli-Macaulay, the lawmaker representing Amuwo-Odofin constituency 1, were mentioned in connection with the palliatives’ hoarding. They were alleged to have kept them for distribution on their birthdays, which incidentally were disrupted by the #EndSARS protest. The result was the invading of Agunbiade’s Ikorodu home where various items believed to have been hoarded were looted. Efforts to get Agunbiade to tell his own side of the story was met with a stone wall as calls to his known line were neither picked nor returned. Although the WhatsApp messages sent to him indicated read, no response was received. However, his Director, Media Matters, Otunba Dare Odufowokan, later called to say that his boss directed him to find out what issues I needed clarifications on. After my discussion with him, he promised that his boss would grant me the interview but quickly added that he was attending a meeting of all Majority Leaders in Ibadan. Unfortunately, that was never to be. Having spent much time trying to get Agunbiade to talk without success, I decided to write out the questions and sent to him, copying his media director. Dare again acknowledged receipt of the questions when he called and again promised that his boss would respond to them. That again was never to be as at the time of writing this report. In like manner, Alli-Macaulay, also failed to pick calls put through to her known line, and did not equally respond to the messages sent to her WhatsApp line. Also, her PA, known only as Idowu neither picked calls put through to him nor returned the same. He did not also respond to messages sent to him.

To be continued This investigative work was supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Reporting/MacArthur Foundation.

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